WASHINGTON, D. C. – Former White House urban policy adviser Ja’Ron Smith says he hasn’t yet decided which of his three former bosses he’ll support in the GOP presidential primary – ex-President Donald Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence or U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
The Cleveland native plans to send all of them a copy of his upcoming book, titled Underserved: Harnessing the Principles of Lincoln’s Vision for Reconstruction for Today’s Forgotten Communities. He says it offers a prescription that Republicans can use to uplift underserved communities like the Lee Harvard neighborhood he hails from, by suggesting ways to revive President Abraham Lincoln’s vision for reconstructing the nation after the Civil War.
“Lincoln had ideas around how to help poor white Americans and poor Black Americans situated in a way to help them seek the American dream, but he was assassinated and the vice-president who replaced him worked with the old plantation owners and that kicked off the beginning of the Jim Crow era,” explains Smith, who authored the book with Chris Pilkerton, a top Small Business Administration official under Trump.
The book. which comes out on September 5, has a forward written by rapper Ice Cube, and cover endorsements that range from Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, to CNN political commentator Van Jones.
Smith says he worked with Ice Cube toward the end of the Trump administration on a plan to create a half-trillion dollars in black community investments, and said he worked on an effort with Ice Cube to increase the diversity of the businesses who supply the National Football League.
“He’s a person who really gets the issues that are plaguing underserved communities, specifically the black community, and he’s willing to work with anyone that’s willing to help underserved black communities,” says Smith.
As Director of Urban Affairs and Revitalization, Smith was one of the highest ranking African-American staffers in the Trump administration. He played a key role in developing Trump policies aimed at helping urban African Americans, including legislation to promote opportunity zones, reform the criminal justice system, and provide aid to the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.
Smith grew up on Cleveland’s Strandhill Road, near Whitney M. Young High School. His father was a longtime Cleveland streets worker who spent summers laying asphalt and winters plowing snow. His mother was addicted to crack for three years, he says, and left his father alone to raise their five children. After his mother kicked her drug habit and got a job at a gas station, Smith says he spent childhood weekends at her home near E. 130th and Buckeye Road.
Smith says he was recruited to play football at John Carroll University, but instead decided to go to Howard University in Washington, D.C., because he wanted to learn more about African American history. He grew intrigued by politics after hearing Vice President Al Gore speak at the school during the 2000 presidential election.
He got his first Capitol Hill job with former Republican U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, a former Oklahoma Sooners and Canadian Football League quarterback who chaired the House Republican Conference. After that, Smith landed jobs with Scott and Pence.
He credits the Trump Administration with helping to pass a criminal justice reform bill that “freed thousands of African Americans and reunited people with their families,” gave historically black colleges and universities the highest level of presidential funding they’ve received in 20 years, and boosted the opportunity zone program that benefits many minority communities. He says he views those policies as ways Trump fulfilled his campaign pledges to help “the forgotten community.”
He rejects complaints from Democrats that Trump is racist, saying “almost every Republican that’s been in leadership has been called a racist.”
After leaving the Trump White House, he joined a consulting firm where he works on ways to help underserved communities through efforts that aim to lower the wealth gap, increase supply chain diversity and end violent crime. He views the book as a way to push elected leaders on the right “to do more of the work that President Trump led on,” and finish Lincoln’s unfinished work.
“I want to amplify that there are solutions and that we can create opportunities now for our communities,” said Smith.
Smith said that post-Civil War efforts like the The Freedmen’s Bureau aimed to help Black people. While the Freedman’s Bank it set up ended up failing, he says the historically black colleges and universities it encouraged survived and flourished.
To get the nation back on the track where he believes Lincoln wanted it to go, Smith argues for re-examining government programs that aim to help the underserved, and figuring out if there would be better ways to federalize dollars to maximize impact.
“Right now, we kind of have a number of different programs that don’t talk to each other, that’s not holistic,” says Smith.
He says the book advocates looking at issues around economic development and affordability, issues around education and workforce, issues around mental health and safe communities, issues around entrepreneurship and wealth building, and how they interact with each other.
“For example, if you want safe communities, sometimes you need access to opportunity in order to have safe communities,” says Smith. “But you can’t get economic development without community safety. So I think we just need to change our approach.”
He advocates an “all of the above” approach, in which federal, state and local governments, churches and the private sector would work directly with underserved communities, to develop a strategy that would reap immediate benefits.
“I wrote the book to be a quick, digestible, 200 pages so that we can we can start this conversation on what works and what doesn’t work, because many of the programs or funding mechanisms in the federal government don’t necessarily have accountability,” says Smith.
He believes that many of the federal government’s programs that are designed to help underserved areas have taken a “one size fits all approach” that doesn’t work in every community and should be adapted.
“You want to have a grassroots approach, and be able to create some flexibility,” says Smith.
He says he plans to formally launch promotions for the book on June 22, and visit cities including Cleveland to promote it.
“I’m back in Cleveland pretty often, because there’s some revitalization work I’m trying to do in Cleveland,” he says. “I’m also touring the country doing the same thing.”
Sabrina Eaton writes about the federal government and politics in Washington, D.C., for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.